Good Samaritan Law Only Goes So Far

December 19, 2008

The California Supreme Court decided that a person who pulls another person from a potentially dangerous situation, causing injury to the endangered person in the process, is not protected by the state’s Good Samaritan laws.

In Van Horn v. Watson, the California Supreme Court affirmed a decision of the court of appeal finding that the “Good Samaritan” statute, which immunizes from liability a person who renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency, does not apply to persons rendering non-medical assistance.  When Lisa Torti observed a road-side accident, she pulled Alexandra Van Horn from the car, apparently out of concern that the vehicle might catch fire.  Ms. Van Horn suffered a spinal injury.

When Ms. Van Horn sued the person who allegedly caused the accident, she also sued Ms. Torti, who allegedly injured Ms. Van Horn’s spine, causing paralysis. Ms. Torti sought summary judgment on the grounds that she was immune from liability under Health & Safety Code §1799.102. Section 1799.102 provides, in pertinent part, that no person who renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency, in good faith, and not for compensation, shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.

After analyzing the legislative history of section 1799.102 and the statutes surrounding it, the Supreme Court held it applied to emergency medical care only.  The court felt that a broader interpretation would undermine the long-standing common law principle that a Good Samaritan aids another is under a duty to exercise due care and render other “Good Samaritan” statutes unnecessary surplusage.

Justices Baxter, Chin and Corrigan dissented from the majority’s interpretation, believing that the plain language of the statute was dispositive and therefore looking at the legislative history was not necessary.

The decison makes you wonder if the result would have been different had Ms. Torti offered some sort of medical treatment.  Would the justices have felt differently if Torti checked Van Horn’s pulse or breathing?  What if she checked for broken bones and tried to immobilize Van Horn?  Then, maybe, Ms. Torti would have been protected.

It is important to remember that we still do not know if Ms. Torti will be found liable.  I suspect she will be able to show she used reasonable care.  It’s anyone’s guess as to how much Ms. Torti will have to spend for her attempt to save another person’s life.

Sayar Fausto, LLP
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Los Altos, CA 94022
Tel: (650) 948-6114
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